What sparked your interest in filmmaking? I grew up in a household of parents who were artists, so that was my start. Photography was a great medium for me because I loved art, but my drawings weren’t up to my standards. I was frustrated that I couldn’t make things look real, so I got a Nikon from one of my parents and started taking pictures. Over time, the idea of merging my creative short stories with photographs naturally led me to moving images and filmmaking.
What inspired you to establish your film production studio Even/Odd? I launched Even/Odd while trying to sustain myself as a filmmaker. I wanted to make very specific work that I did not see represented in mainstream media. I didn’t want to adjust any of my ideas for others, so I had to come up with independent means to make ends meet. Making the 2013 short film “REFUGE,” my first project with film producer Malcolm Pullinger, and having that go well led to more collaborations. This resulted in a sustainable ecosystem for a creative studio that could support the kinds of stories we wanted to tell.
How would you define your visual style, and how do you apply it to your filmmaking and advertising work? I’m influenced by artists, documentarians and filmmakers like photographer Eli Reed. I try to craft images with a cinematic quality. Even if they’re standalone photographs, I make the image reveal something. I’m not trying to be objective; I want to manufacture a narrative rooted in authentic representation but that also expresses a certain feeling as much as I possibly can. I attempt to heavily construct every image.
In my mind, I don’t separate advertising from filmmaking. I make things the way I want to make them—as planned. Thankfully, I’ve been able to do that more often recently. Sometimes I take jobs for the team to build the studio, but not as frequently. That’s different from the norm. I use the toolkit of a narrative filmmaker for my advertising as well as those in photography, documentaries and filmmaking, and I use the appropriate tools as needed. For example, I try to avoid stepping into a location I’ve never been to; I scout everything in advance. For “Exit 12,” we got a different dance studio than the one that was part of the original story because I didn’t like how it looked, and that felt important to the narrative I wanted to portray.
In For Every Dream, your series of films and photo essays for Square, you provide a platform for entrepreneurs around the United States to speak of their struggles and victories against economic, racial and environmental injustice. What inspired you to undertake this series, and did anything surprise you during the process? Those were stories about the intersection of how people survive, live and triumph inside the dominant system of American inequity, a system that wasn’t designed for them. That’s my community; that’s who I represent. For me, it’s always about doing the work and showing its reality but also highlighting the potential of those who might otherwise get overlooked. This project was an opportunity that grew out of the people at Square seeing my independent films and meeting others who felt would be great subjects, so we linked. We sat together and developed a slate of stories, then tried to research and find them. This became the For Every Dream series. These communities had a different interpretation of what the American Dream means, so it aligned with my vision of getting their voices heard.
These experiences colored my own perspectives and helped others understand how different folks grow up in our country. The series enables people to see immigrants and low-income folks and families as three-dimensional, not simply defined by their circumstances.
Communication Arts has previously featured your work with Hello Monday on the web version of America Is An Idea, Not A Geography, your docuseries that tells the stories of immigrants within the US Lyft driver community. What was it like to work on that? It was more of an editorial integration than a docuseries. We took stories with a specific journalistic gaze and elevated them with a style and presentation that made it sit in social culture, as opposed to it being a really good piece of journalism. We treated it more editorially. I think we did it well.
We insisted that—before the George Floyd tragedy—almost everyone working on those stories were from first-generation immigration backgrounds since they came from the same communities as those stories. Here, it was a requirement. Each person had to speak very specifically about their culture. When we’re making films about people’s cultures, we have to build trust and get the subjects to let down any guards with whoever is documenting their story. One Pakistani director interviewed a Pakistani subject in New York, and they had a specific bond that seemed more like two friends talking among themselves. This created a nuance to the project since 80 percent of the people involved were from immigrant communities.
What was it like working with Cardi B on the @cardibtruthtellerr Instagram account? As a studio, executive producer Cayce Cole deserves the most credit since she dealt with the majority of this. It shows we can do the work that we’re known for but also step into a massive Cardi B project that was done quickly at the end of the year. It had some crazy components with a scope and style that showed the true capabilities of our studio as a creative family. It was fun. I’m like any other person; sometimes it’s fun just to do something, especially when it involves a major artist like Cardi B.
With the ongoing reconciliation of discrimination throughout visual communications, what do you feel can help accelerate the creation of an inclusive industry? We need to put people in charge who have a stake in these outcomes. That’s it. You want to dismantle sexism? Put more women in power. You want to dismantle discrimination? Put those who are being discriminated against in power. Same with racism and class inequity. This would also involve adjusting your metrics of who is “qualified.” Things like college credits, no criminal history and a threshold amount of experience all need to be questioned. Many of these are designed to keep certain people in power while penalizing the 1 percent of people’s shortcomings, which are already an aftereffect of systemic helplessness.
Is there anything within DEI that you feel the industry doesn’t pay enough attention to? Class reckoning is the next frontier. In other words, people can still exploit their own communities, which often is a result of class exploitation. It’s not being reckoned with enough because it requires a nuanced conversation and because in creative industries, regardless of background, some people may come from a certain level of economic wealth with respect to others in their community who may have not.
Who would you love to work with on a film and why? I love Ming Smith. It would be a dream to collaborate with her as a cinematographer. I would love to get to know her and learn from her. She’s an amazing photographer.
Aside from your camera and lighting, what item could you not work without? My humidifier. I travel with a humidifier in my hotel room. There’s nothing worse on the sinuses than air that is too dry.
Where would you like to take Even/Odd from here? I want to continue building and strengthening our community while representing our world in new, unique ways. I want to make documents, works and films that broadcast these times we’re living in for whoever that future audience may be. That way, they can understand what we’ve lived through, who was breathing and the feelings we’ve had.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Make your own work how you want. Don’t try to find your purpose—especially in advertising—as a creator. Find your purpose in the art itself, whatever that means to you. Parts of that can later be extracted and applied to other industries, whether advertising or something else. But at all costs, just make your own stuff. ca